Descendants of ‘Indian Maria’ revive history of their people
VICTORVILLE — Over the centuries, the Mojave Narrows has been a crossroads — for the Indians, then for the Spanish, then for American ranchers and settlers.
But there was one person who stayed there the longest of anyone — dwelling in Victorville all her 104 years. She is Maria Chapula, known as Indian Maria, Indian Marie, or even Victorville Maria.
On Monday, the day before the 47th anniversary of her death, Chapula’s granddaughter came to Old Town to visit her grave and rediscover memories of her visits here as a child.
When Chapula died on July 10, 1960, she was the last member of a Chemehuevi village near the Narrows. But she was not the last of her tribe.
Her descendant, Ernestine Paddock Sharpe, drove from Parker, Ariz., to bring the history of her people out of obscurity.
“We want to preserve it,” she said. “It’s being lost right now as it is.”
Though many in Victorville would not know it, Indian Maria lives on through her works of art, housed at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Chapula was a master basket weaver.
“My grandmother always said the Chemehuevi baskets are the hardest baskets to make in the United States,” said Weegie Claw, a cousin of Sharpe’s whose grandmother used to weave with Chapula.
Claw now teaches the art of basket weaving in Tehachapi, continuing the tradition of a basket woven so well that it is more like a bowl.
It takes six to eight weeks to make a Chemehuevi basket, working 10 to 12 hours a day, Claw said.
Phil Wyman, a former California Assemblyman whose great grandparents started the cement plant in Oro Grande, met Chapula’s descendants through their mutual interest in native culture and accompanied them to Victorville.
“The friendship’s been renewed,” said Wyman, whose great grandmother used to go to the village to buy baskets from Chapula.
The Chemehuevi are related to the Paiute nation. A nomadic people, they wandered through the High Desert from the Colorado River on the east to the Tehachapi Mountains on the west and from Las Vegas and Death Valley on the north to the San Bernardino and San
Gabriel mountains on the south.
In the town of Victor, as it was once called, the village settled along the Mojave River where Victor Valley Memorial Park now is.
In 1867, when Maria was 11, a massacre at Chimney Rock — in retaliation for an earlier murder of three farm hands — thinned the ranks of her tribe. But she and her parents survived, according to a scholarly study of Indians in Victorville.
She married Manuel Chapula, who died in about 1932, according to a census by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Though she lived in poverty most of her life, dwelling in a temporary “brush arbor” built to shield her from sun, Chapula’s sense of home was a permanent one. She lived on a lot that stands empty today at the northwest corner of 10th and C streets.
“Maria was the only one that stayed,” Sharpe said. “This was home.”
Throughout her long life, she cleaned and cared for Victorville households and wove baskets out of native desert willow and devil’s claw, always wearing the Chemehuevi style of floor-length cotton skirt, blouse tucked in, white apron and white head scarf. She spoke a few words in Spanish, fewer in English, and the Chemehuevi dialect.
When her granddaughter used to come visit with their aunt, Chapula had retired and was weaving baskets full time — hosting her kinsmen as they would travel on their way somewhere.
At that time, Chapula’s companion was a dog named Sam.
Once when Chapula was shopping at Safeway, she bought too many things to carry, she told her granddaughter. When she came out of the store, Sam was already in the back of a taxi.
“The dog went around the corner and got in the taxi,” Sharpe said. “The driver knew her and circled around.”
Chapula’s grave is labeled as “Marie Chapuli,” a member of the Paiute tribe, at the Victor Valley cemetery, and is marked by a Victorville historic sign.
Ernestine Sharpe, Weegie Claw and Phil Wyman, bonded by their love of Indian culture, hope to bring some of Maria’s baskets back to the Victor Valley for display — a fitting monument to the place she so loved.
Tatiana Prophet may be reached at 951-6222 or at email@example.com